Understanding the Keys to Memory

Keys to Memory

It is never too late to work on maximizing your memory and cognitive skills. When you think about it, our ability to memorize numbers or names change on a daily basis. Some days you feel like all systems are firing and you feel sharp- with every piece of information at your fingertips. Other days, when you haven’t had enough sleep or are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, you can’t remember what you had for breakfast that morning. That’s all common in normal memory and aging. But when the days of forgetfulness begin to outweigh the days when you feel like you could win at Jeopardy, then it may be time to check with your physician to discuss your concerns.

How is Memory Defined?

Memory loss isn’t a simple thing, and there are many factors at work when considering the process of memory loss. There are four different types of memory: Sensory, short-term, working and long-term memory.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory loss is one of the first symptoms of cognitive decline. You might recall your loved one asking the same question multiple times in the course of a day or a couple of days. This is commonly described as the inability to recall information that was just recently given to you. The amount of time concerning ‘short-term’ can be from a couple of seconds, up to a few days.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is usually visible in Alzheimer’s patients and in other advanced dementia later on in diagnosis. These memories are from a few weeks to early memories from life. The process of memory moves from sensory to short-term to long-term. 

Working Memory

Working memory is  kind of like a workbench, where your brain is dealing with a finite number of things at once, sorting out what to keep and send to long-term memory, what can be left in short-term, and what can be discarded all together. It’s part of the attention system. It’s said we can keep about 7 things in our working memory at a time- that’s one of the reasons phone numbers started out as seven digits. However, we’ve also figured out ways to expand that number, such as chunking information into pieces- phone numbers now have an area code (one chunk), a locator (the first three digits) and your identifier (the last four digits), but from your memory’s point of view, this is only three pieces of information- three chunks of data.

Language and Physical Memory Loops

Working memory also has two parts or loops- one of which is for language-based tasks and one for physical tasks. We all think we can multi-task, but the truth is there are limits in the system, based on these two “loops.” The best way to think of this is that most people can only do one verbal/language based task at a time, but you can do a physical task, like driving- while you are doing a verbal task, like talking on the phone.  

However, if one of these tasks becomes too demanding- you are in an emotional argument on the phone, or you suddenly get caught in a rainstorm or dangerous road condition- your ability to multi-task disappears, as each task fights for more of your current attention and working memory.

Working memory problems and the inability to take in and encode new information- names, dates, appointments, and more- is often noticed in the early stages of cognitive disease.  This is where many people have the most difficulty, because in order to form new patterns of behavior, adapt to new environments, and even make new friends- all of these things rely on the ability to take in, encode and remember new information.

Sensory Memory

remembering with pictures

Sensory memory is automatic, as information comes in from all of our senses and makes an impression. Sensory memory is often not referred to as much in detecting cognitive disorders because it is subtle, and often attached to other memories. However, sensory memories can be deeply encoded as well.  The way it smelled after the rain on a summer’s day at camp;  What it was like when you heard your child laugh for the first time; your favorite song and all the lyrics; the warmth of the fireplace and your pet curled up next to you; the sights and smells of your grandmother’s kitchen over the holidays. All of these sensory memories can be deeply rooted and even emotionally- laden, associated with sounds, scents, touch, and taste.

The thing to remember about sensory memory is that it often retains the ability to affect people as other forms of memory become more difficult.  Looking at old pictures, feeling kind and familiar touch, tasting favorite foods, and exploring different smells can be very reassuring to those experiencing other memory loss and can be a way to continue to connect through shared experience.

What is your baseline? I Have Never Been Able to Remember Names

Many people will claim that they have never had a good memory for _______________ ( you fill in the blank). And many people have always had difficulty remembering faces or numbers or sequences for directions. 

Some of these reasons might be related to diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities. If you have always had difficulty with certain memory tasks such as working memory or dyslexia, for example, then your particular deficit is part of your memory or intellectual baseline.  What might be concerning to some who have never had difficulties in memory tasks, might just be part of your memory “profile” or how you have always processed information. So it is important to know and acknowledge any possible strength or weakness you might have. 

And not surprisingly, having certain learning disabilities can make diagnosing dementia more difficult. Make sure that if you feel the need to consult with a physician about memory or processing issues, that they know about any kind of learning disability or memory pattern that has been a part of your life since day one.

Stressed woman
Stress happens, and it can effect your attention and memory for details

Confounding Factors

But it is important to remember that there are many other reasons for memory lapses. Some are medical, such as certain medications can cause “brain fog” or forgetfulness. Alcohol overuse as well as stress and lack of sleep can cause difficulty in processing information as well as memory lapses. So checking with your physician to determine if medications can be causing unwelcome symptoms is the first step in finding relief.

No matter what the cause, there are additional ways to “nurture” your brain to keep it functioning as well as it can.

Tricks for Improving Memory

If you have always had difficulty with remembering certain things, then you may have developed certain tricks for managing. For example, keeping lists of tasks that need to be done or steps needed to be taken can help folks with working memory issues. Repeating numbers or names to yourself until you “remember” it is helpful when attempting to recall names or number sequences. These tricks all help to “imprint” the information into your longer term memory or just plain give us a reference point to use.

But the idea of “keeping your brain active” helps to exercise the brain and may help to stave off a certain amount of cognitive decline.

Studies of animals show that keeping the mind active may:

  • Reduce the amount of brain cell damage that happens with Alzheimer’s
  • Support the growth of new nerve cells
  • Prompt nerve cells to send messages to each other

When you keep your brain active with exercises or other tasks, you may help build up a reserve supply of brain cells and links between them. You might even grow new brain cells. This may be one reason scientists have seen a link between Alzheimer’s and lower levels of education. Experts think the extra mental activity from education may protect the brain by strengthening connections between its cells.

What Kinds of Activities Can Help?

Just like exercise can keep our bodies fit and help to stave off physical decline, certain activities geared to stimulate memory skills, processing speed and comprehension can help to keep the mind working at optimal levels for as long as possible.

You could start with something as simple as eating with the hand you usually don’t use from time to time. You can also:

  • Learn something new, such as a second language or a musical instrument.
  • Play board games with your kids or grandkids. Or get your friends together for a weekly game of cards. Mix it up by trying new games. The extra bonus of activities like these? Social connections also help your brain.
  • Work on crossword, number, or other kinds of puzzles.
  • Play online memory games or video games.
  • Read, write, or sign up for local adult education classes.

What to Do When You are Just Not Sure

If you feel as if you are just not quite yourself and you are losing sight of certain abilities to process information or language or memories, consult with your physician. Early diagnosis is one of the ways that certain dementias can be slowed down and a plan put into place that will maximize your abilities.

Part of a plan is to understand the ways in which your disease might progress and what your best options are for obtaining the care that is best for you. If you are lucky enough to live in the Bucks County area of Pennsylvania, the program that should be first on your list to check out is the Memory Care program at Chandler Hall.

The Person-Centered Care approach to Memory Care at Chandler Hall meets each resident where they are – interests are explored, residents are celebrated for the people that they were and are. Find out more about our program by downloading our guide, Navigating the Journey of Memory Care below.

Want to Learn More About Memory Care?


Just click the button below to Download our Guide, Navigating the Journey of Memory Care to learn more about diagnosing and caring for people with dementia, and how the services here at CHandler Hall may be able to help you and your loved one as you navigate the journey of care over time.